Dreams Coming True is a Thursday feature on my blog, a way to highlight those whose goal is to create community. The dream might be a blog, a published book, a small business, volunteering, or even fundraising for a charity. Something that makes the world a better place . . . for others.
“Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin” (Zechariah 4:10, NLT).
Welcome Alison Cardenas, a volunteer for Guide Dogs for the Blind! Tell us a little about yourself, Alison:
My name is Alison Cardenas. I’m a teacher for the visually impaired in San Diego and a lover of all animals, especially dogs. I’m currently raising my third puppy for Guide Dogs for the Blind. Raising a Guide Dog Puppy is a volunteer project that helps Guide Dogs ready a puppy to become a working guide dog for a person with a visual impairment.
When did this creative dream begin?
I first became interested in Guide Dogs for the Blind when I was in elementary school. My family decided to be “puppy sitters” instead of raising a puppy of our own at first. Whenever anyone from our club needed someone to keep their puppy, for a few days or weeks, we would watch the puppy. During these years we kept over 200 puppies. I raised my first Guide Dog Puppy, Zinny, a yellow lab, when I was in high school. I co-raised another puppy, Una, a golden retriever, just after finishing college. My husband and I are currently raising Larkin, a little 16-week-old black lab.
How did this project/idea get started?
My family first found out about Guide Dogs and puppy raising when we met a couple training a Guide Dog Puppy at a 4th of July event when I was in kindergarten. We waited until I was in 4th grade because we thought it had to be done as a 4-H program. Later we realized that raising a puppy didn’t have to be done through 4-H, but that was a good age to start. Even at age six, I immediately knew this was something that I wanted to be involved with, even though I waited many years before raising my first puppy.
What makes this project stand out from the crowd?
I think the biggest thing that makes this project stand out is that we are taking our puppies to places that pets don’t get to go. Even running to the grocery store for one item can take a long time because so many people stop and ask questions or share stories. People don’t expect to see a puppy in a store and want to pet it or ask about it. Being out in public is what the puppy is learning to do and sometimes you have to slow down if the puppy is experiencing something new or not handling a situation correctly. You get a lot of attention, but the goal is to train the puppy and sometimes you have to help educate the public as well, like not to just reach out and pet the puppy when it is “working”. But they are so cute that they do draw a lot of attention and questions.
What are the goals and intentions of Guide Dogs for the Blind?
The ultimate goal is for our puppies to complete their training and become Guide Dogs for individuals who are blind or visually impaired. One of Guide Dogs’ slogans is “Raise a puppy. Change a life.” And as I’ve said before, it’s a volunteer project and we don’t get paid for it, but the rewards are uncountable.
Raising a Guide Dog creates community because everywhere you go with your puppy, you are representing Guide Dogs and people always have stories to share or questions to ask. Additionally, you become part of a puppy-raising club and meet some incredible people with the same love for dogs and helping others. Some of my closest friends to this day I met through Guide Dogs over 20 years ago.
Many have creative ideas but trouble following through with them. What advice would you give to creative types who start projects eagerly…but then enthusiasm drizzles off?
Making a commitment to take a live animal into your home for a year and taking them everywhere is a huge commitment that cannot be taken lightly. Sure, sometimes it doesn’t work out and Guide Dogs looks for the best solution for that puppy, but this isn’t a common situation. You are giving a year of your life to this project. There is a specially bred animal involved that needs the best care and love possible and help to become the eyes for a visually impaired person. Everyone has to be on the same team and have the same goal in mind. If this is a whim, it probably isn’t the right project for them.
Describe the behind-the-scenes effort of your project. Where do the ideas come from? How many are involved in the process? Does each contributer have a specific role?
The behind-the-scenes efforts include having a puppy in your home for about a year. Larkin didn’t sleep through the night for the first month we had him. Una got carsick. This presents a problem when you are trying to take her places and give her new experiences. Zinny once found a dead rat in our backyard. It was really gross and my mom said she was my project so I had to deal with it. As well behaved as the puppies appear to be in public, sometimes they are just puppies!
What’s been the hardest part about getting it off the ground?
The hardest part is when the puppy forgets it is supposed to sleep at night and you have to go to work in the morning. Or as you’re about to walk out the door it gets into something or has an accident. Of course it is hard when it is recalled for formal training when it is about 15 to 18 months old and you have loved it for over a year, taken it everywhere with you and it is part of your life. Some people take the puppy back for training and have scheduled to receive a new puppy to take home with them that same day! I’m not sure it would ease the pain, but it sure would keep you busy! Back-to-back puppies is a huge commitment.
What have you learned?
Raising puppies for Guide Dogs has taught me to expect the unexpected. It’s always the dogs that you think are perfect that get “Career Changed” and the ones that you think have no chance of graduating that fly through the training. It’s taught me to be prepared and plan ahead because you can’t take the puppy without its coat or training equipment. It has taught me to slow down. Seeing life from a puppy’s eyes and at a puppy’s level is really enlightening. I’ve learned that as important as the dogs are in our lives, they are that much more important to their blind partner. There is nothing better than seeing a Guide Dog assisting a blind person and knowing that is what we are working towards.
Have there been any unexpected surprises?
We are raising puppies! Puppies are always doing the unexpected. The first time we took a puppy to Target, January (no, we don’t name them, Guide Dogs does), decided he needed to relieve himself in the middle of the linen aisle. That’s why we carry clean up kits. Porter started to throw up in a department store where my mom had just bought me a new pair of shoes. She tore off the bag and stuck it under Porter’s mouth as fast as she could! Always when I took the puppies to school something unexpected happened. Kids and puppies, you can just use your imagination. I was in middle school when rolling backpacks first became popular. Four paws are a lot to get out of the way when a kid and a backpack come rolling by. Do you know how much food hits the cafeteria floor in one day? Some of my puppies did, even if they are trained not to eat it!
What are the biggest misconceptions people have about starting your project?
I think that people think that it won’t be as hard as it is. Sometimes I hear people say that raising a Guide Dog is a swim team commitment, or like having a baby. It’s definitely a 24/7 commitment. It doesn’t matter how tired you are if your puppy is sick or wants to play. You have to be up for it or bribe someone else in your family. I forget each time I sign up for another one. I also think people underestimate how hard it will be to give the puppy back for its training. You definitely become attached to the puppy in the year that you keep it in your home. But knowing that it can one day give a blind person freedom and independence makes it worth it. Just going to a Guide Dog graduation makes you more humble and you realize the impact you are making in someone else’s life. I will try and remember that when I send Larkin back on the puppy truck in a few short months.
What are some ways you promote your project?
The puppies usually promote themselves. A puppy in a green jacket in a restaurant or on public transportation stands out. We always love to hear people say they didn’t even know a dog was there as we leave! But we’re always willing to answer questions about our puppies and the job that they will hopefully one day have. By people coming up to us and asking questions, they are helping us train the puppies. The puppy has to learn to sit and behave, even if they are bored out of their minds when we are chatting with an interested person. They might someday have to go to work with their blind person. But really, how much advertising do you need when a cute puppy is sitting and behaving well in CVS or Home Depot? When I was in Girl Scouts, we always took a puppy to our cookie booth sales each year. You wouldn’t believe how many more cookies we sold with an adorable puppy there. Few people can resist a puppy in an unexpected place. They are their own advertisement, but Guide Dogs is always in need of volunteers for many aspects of the organization, not just puppy raising.
What social network has worked best for you?
We received Larkin at eight weeks old and for the first time I was able to see videos of him, with his mom and his littermates when they were first born via Guide Dog’s Facebook and YouTube. Before Larkin, we didn’t have access to the puppy’s life in the kennels. Additionally, I have been able to connect with the puppy raiser who is raising Larkin’s sister via Facebook, which I think is really cool! We can share stories about our puppies as they are growing even though we are in different states.
What advice would you give someone else who has a creative dream like yours?
I think that no matter what your dream is, it is worth pursuing. I waited over 10 years before I raised my first puppy and then several years between each one. Don’t ever give up on something that feels like a passion, even if it takes a long time to get there!
Where do you see this project in five years?
I hope that we are able to continue to stay involved with Guide Dogs in some capacity for many years to come. I truly feel like it is part of who I am. Raising a puppy is a big commitment, so we will likely take some time off after Larkin returns to Guide Dogs for his training, but I’m hoping to stay involved in our club in San Diego and at least do some puppy-sitting for fellow raisers. There truly are a lot of ways to be involved; not just being a puppy raiser, and it is for such a good cause!
How can we find your creative dream come true?
Anyone interested in raising a puppy for Guide Dogs for the Blind can visit: guidedogs.com